Cops and immigration enforcement

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Jorge Emilio Esquivel-Munoz, 31, who is from Mexico but has lived in Minneapolis over the past four years, probably didn’t imagine that hanging out with a friend who was drunkenly fooling around with a toy BB gun would trigger his arrest and deportation. But last Sunday, April 20, that’s exactly what happened, according to his girlfriend, a 24-year-old Latina who says her name is Judy.

Esquivel-Munoz, who doesn’t speak English, was wrongly identified as the owner of the toy pistol, says Judy, who wasn’t present at the scene. (“Toy” is no excuse under the law; it’s illegal to have a replica gun in Minneapolis.) Currently, Esquivel-Munoz is located at an Elk River facility, awaiting deportation. Judy said she’s been told that he will be dropped off somewhere around the Texas border in about a week.

It’s instances like these, Judy says, that raise questions about the crossover between the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In Minneapolis, police officers are prohibited through a Separation Ordinance from doing double-duty as federal immigration agents (same thing goes for St. Paul) by inquiring about or taking action on the immigration status of people they encounter. While officials from both agencies claim that there’s an element of natural overlap in their duties at times, such as joint handling of people who are in jail, MPD officials claim they strive to stay out of immigration affairs altogether, adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. They say building trust in immigrant communities makes day-to-day police work easier. But some local residents say that doesn’t stop the police from overstepping that boundary at times. They claim reports of racial profiling by police and/or getting hassled on the basis of immigration status are fairly commonplace among ethnic-looking minorities.

In the case of Esquivel-Munoz, Judy believes he was unfairly arrested” “Jorge is not the owner of the toy gun and he never played with it. He had no idea the other guy had it. I think the police made up that excuse so he could be arrested… They took him in an arbitrary way, as the owner of the gun, so that he looks like he did a crime so they could take him to immigration.”

A one-sided story

Esquivel-Munoz and three other friends were outside a South Minneapolis home in a parked car, getting ready to leave, when several police officers approached them on Sunday afternoon. They had gone out to eat at a Mexican restaurant on Nicollet Avenue South and were still hung-over from their activities the night before. (Judy says she can’t even remember what restaurant they visited.) Police were called onto the scene when a witness called 911 about seeing three males in a car waving around a handgun, according to the original police report.

The officers searched the men. Esquivel-Munoz, who had flashed some sort of fake ID to police, was promptly arrested, charged with possession of a weapon and hauled off to the Hennepin County jail. Esquivel-Munoz had no prior convictions in the previous two years, according to police information. Now, thanks to the toy gun, there’s a felony charge on his record, according to the online Hennepin County Sheriff’s Jail Roster.

On Wednesday morning, when Judy and a few friends went to the Hennepin County jail to visit Esquivel-Munoz, they were told he had already been turned over to ICE. “He didn’t know why he was being held in jail,” says Judy. “He didn’t have a Spanish-speaking interpreter. Nobody told him what was going on in his language. Nobody read him his rights. The police took advantage of the fake ID.”

MPD spokesperson Sgt. Jesse Garcia said this doesn’t sound like the whole story and added that MPD made a legal arrest. “Translators are available. They’re only required when someone is being questioned. People get arrested first and then investigators pick up a case [for questioning],” he says. At this time, the case is out of MPD hands and he says he has no other specifics on the case. “Everything else is with the other agency.”

Esquivel-Munoz’s transfer to ICE is a separate matter, Garcia said, deferring to the city and department policy of staying out immigration affairs.

MPD/ICE collaborating?

Tim Counts, an ICE spokesman who works in its Bloomington office, said he couldn’t talk about Esquivel-Munoz’s case specifically. Generally, he says, ICE screens the foreign-born prison populations of local-to-federal-level jails and prisons. The agency has a full-time presence in federal prisons, along with the vast majority of state facilities. Although ICE intends to screen every jail or prison in the coming years, Counts says the agency currently works on a case-by-case basis on the local level. If a suspect who has been jailed has an ICE arrest warrant on his or her record, that person will be detained until other authorities arrive. After ICE collects him or her, that person will typically undergo deportation proceedings, including going before a federal immigration judge, Counts explains.

Of 282,000 people deported by ICE nationwide last year, around 90,000 had criminal convictions, according to ICE statistics. Of the 4,062 removed from the five-state area, 1,402 people had a criminal history.

ICE gets leads from all over the place, including from police — not excluding the MPD, among many other sources. Recently, ICE worked with the MPD on a couple of prostitution-ring busts and gang issues dealing with illegal aliens, he said. “In general, we think communication between agencies is a good thing. We may encounter violations that cross jurisdictional and geographic boundaries.”

“Certain advocates may try to say that ICE is an isolated thing with a firewall around it, but that’s not true. Any law enforcement official that encounters illegal activity has the authority to contact another government agency. If someone believes immigration laws are being violated, they can reach out to ICE. Law enforcement is law enforcement.”

A telling 2004 email

Despite the Separation Ordinance, enacted in 2003, some cops have believed all along that they should take an active role in cooperating with immigration authorities. Minnesota Monitor obtained one 2004 MPD internal email, sent by an officer to the rest of the force, that encourages fellow officers to contact ICE in certain cases. He wrote: “While getting [a suspect’s] personal information, he admitted to me that he was from Mexico and was an illegal immigrant, along with working at Chili’s in Rosedale, and that they pay him in cash, so they do not have any record of his employment. I contacted INS via telephone, and the individual I spoke with was extremely happy that I had called. She reassured me that they DO want to know about any illegal immigrants, or even possible legal immigrants, including suspected terrorists, despite the fact that we have been told in the past not to call or report these people.”

Asked about the 2004 email, MPD spokesman Sgt. Bill Palmer says it doesn’t represent the city’s or department’s policy and that the department maintains a hands-off approach to immigration issues. “We want everyone to feel free to come to the police. We don’t want people to feel afraid to call us,” says Palmer. “We don’t ask the question. You can’t be detained [on that basis]. It’s a federal crime, not a local one,” he said.

Generally speaking, “Most officers avoid the issue. Don’t ask, don’t tell, then there’s no problem,” says Palmer. The city’s Separation Ordinance articulates that while the city cooperates with Homeland Security and other federal agencies, it “does not operate its programs for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration laws,” it states. That means that public safety officials “shall not undertake any law enforcement action for the purpose of detecting the presence of undocumented persons, or to verify immigration status, including but not limited to questioning any person or persons about their immigration status.” Under the Separation Ordinance, they can’t “arrest or detain any person for violations of federal civil immigration laws…”

Policy pre-dates recent ‘immigration hysteria’

Back then, city leaders sought to standardize departmental procedures even amid changes in leadership, according to City Council member Gary Schiff. Unbeknownst to him and other policymakers, the city’s business licensing division was requiring proof of immigration status on application forms. “Some employee just added the requirement to all of these forms, without any training. We didn’t know there were such major inconsistencies throughout city,” he says.

However, “The [Separation] policy is a lot older than the recent wave in immigration hysteria.”

Despite the separation, some people claim they’ve been targeted by police because of their race. In one example, a 22-year-old Latino woman who identified herself only as Anna (not her real name) and spoke through an unnamed translator, said she was pulled over by Minneapolis police in September 2007 on Lake Street, near Bloomington Avenue. She was on her way to a dental appointment when a couple police officers approached her. “They asked if I had drugs or arms … They were looking in the car for something … They said they were stopping just for a check,” she said.

“[The officer] asked if I was illegal. I said ‘You can’t ask.’ He said ‘That means you are.’ … He say to me, ‘Why do you come to my country? I know you’re illegal … Why do you come here and break the law? Next time I stop you, you will go to jail,'” Anna shakily recalled in a dimly lit hallway of a south Minneapolis church.

Lee Reid, manager of Minneapolis’ Civilian Review Authority (CRA), which provides citizen oversight to the Police Department (individual cases get brought forward for investigation), said he hasn’t formally received any complaints about the profiling of Latinos, but he has heard of concerns in casual conversation. Nobody has filed anything with the department, probably because some people don’t feel like they’re in a position to do so, he said.

As for Esquivel-Munoz’s case, Judy said the reality of the situation hasn’t hit her yet. The couple has been together for five years. “It’s hard to digest. Sometimes I feel sad, confused. Other times I feel resigned. Sometimes I feel like I’d like to help him but I can’t. It makes me angry. I cry about it at night. I miss him. I’m sad I can’t say goodbye to him,” she said, adding that after he gets deported, “We’ll be calling each other. he told me he will try to call me everyday,” Judy said.